My first impression when I step through the doors of Sitsongpeenong Gym in Bangkok is that it is nice. I don't mean frilly or soft, meant only for foreign tourists on training holidays; after all, Sitsongpeenong is known for its elite Thai fighters and hard training. But unlike many other Bangkok gyms that focus on Thai fighters, Sitsongpeenong is, in fact, nice. The roomy, self-contained complex, complete with a pool table, is polished and clean. A quick walk through the facility makes it clear the interior designers put some thought into this place.
Foreign students, like the gym's Thai fighters, are able to live on-site. The population of foreign fighters fluctuates throughout the year, but rarely creeps above 15. "We've got 10 rooms, and once it's full, it's full," says Sitsongpeenong owner Tim. And that's how he wants to keep it, to maintain the quality of training.
In the eight short years since it was founded in 2008, Sitsongpeenong (which means "students of two brothers," a reference to Tim's two sons) has garnered a solid name, both domestically and abroad, through the success of its Thai fighters. The gym is also the setting for Irish author Paul Garrigan's memoir Muay Thai Fighter.
Foreign students have a definite presence at the gym, but few stay longer than a couple weeks or months. These non-Thai fighters do indeed bolster the gym's income, but unlike gyms that make the bulk of their money off foreign students (say, many gyms in Phuket), Sitsongpeenong is kept alive and well by the purses commanded of its Thais, huge names like Sittichai and Kem Sitsongpeenong, who fight regularly, now more often in matches overseas than domestically.
Kem, who owns a gym in the Khao Yai mountains together with his wife and her family, has been with Sitsongpeenong since the gym's early days. When owner Tim established the gym in 2008, he set about searching for "the best trainer and the best fighter" he could find. Best fighter? It was Kem, whose contract was priced at 1.2 million baht (approximately US $35,000).
After some negotiation, Tim bought Kem's contract for 850,000 baht. "It's cheap for him," Tim says. Kem has proved to be one of Sitsongpeenong's most valuable investments, maintaining a good name and reputation, and reliably commanding high purses both domestically and overseas.
Next for Tim in building his ideal gym was finding the best trainer. From the age of 15, Tim journeyed to Thailand from Australia every year to train at Fairtex Gym. When it came time to find the first trainer for his new venture, his number one pick was an older man named Monlit, who had been training Tim since his initial forays into Muay Thai 30 years ago at Fairtex.
Award-winning Monlit (Trainer of the Year), was "world-class, one of the top trainers in Thailand," as Tim describes him. But Monlit had long ago left the sport, and it wasn't easy to convince him to take up Muay Thai again. When Tim approached him about joining the new gym, Monlit had been out of the industry for 10 years, had instead created a small business selling chickens at the market.
Luckily for Sitsongpeenong, however, the chicken business wasn't doing well. "Out of the blue, he called me," Tim remembers. "Said he was doing tough with the chickens." Monlit asked his old student if he could help him find a job overseas, any job, anywhere. "I said, 'I can't think of what job you can do. Why don't you do the job you're born to do? The job you're best at?'" Tim recalls. At first, Monlit was hesitant to reenter the world of Muay Thai, but Tim persisted, taking his old trainer to watch fights and slowly rekindling in him a love of the sport he'd left.
Eventually, Monlit agreed. With a top-notch trainer and an elite fighter, Tim was ready and committed. "I rented a house in town, took over that gym that wasn't being utilized, recruited some fighters, and that's how we got started," Tim says. One year later, in 2009, Sitsongpeenong moved to its current Bangkok facility.
Staying solvent wasn't easy for the new gym. No profit was made during the first two years. In fact, the gym was losing money every month. But Tim and the team kept an optimistic attitude, and slowly the situation changed. Tim invested further in the gym, acquiring more Thai fighters and establishing a reputation for quality training. Sitsongpeenong fighters frequently showed winning performances in top domestic stadia, and management found more opportunities for their well-known fighters like Kem and Sittichai to compete overseas, thereby strengthening their reputation internationally as well.
But my question when I visited the camp was, why is this place so nice? This is a Bangkok gym with a reputation for fierce Thai fighters, not a holiday camp geared toward tourists on one of the islands. But yet here's Sitsongpeenong with its aesthetically pleasing interior design and a pool table. How many legit Bangkok gyms have a pool table?
"I knew that you can't survive on Thai fighters alone, so [the gym is] built with everything in mind when you have foreigners here," Tim explains. "We wanted something nice."
But if the gym can't survive on the purses earned by its famous Thai fighters, could Sitsongpeenong survive solely on money brought in by foreign students then?
Tim doesn't think so. A business based on foreign customers might work in a different economy, like down south in Phuket or in Pai in the north, but not in Bangkok. In the capital, "what attracts [foreign students] is being able to train with world-class fighters in a nice place," Tim says.
"If we didn't have those [Thai] fighters and the younger ones who are making a big name in the stadiums here, because you need to [make a name] overseas and in Thailand, not just overseas, then who is going to come and train here? Unless we do what we do, who is going to train here? We're not in Phuket where we have a beach down the road and people are going to come train here because they want to go to the beach and go nightclubbing."
Tim is business-minded and savvy, and it shows in his gym. The management team is constantly making improvements: new display cabinets to hold the growing number of belts and trophies, another ring to accommodate more fighters, and minor updates to existing rooms, like new shower heads and faucets. New blood is also arriving, recently acquired fighters like Petchnongkhai, Yodpayak, and Petchwanlop. It's all part of keeping up the high standards Sitsongpeenong has been known for since the beginning.
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